A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: Published Macmillan, 1928, New York

This volume consists of the published papers of a group which met under the chairmanship of Canon B.H. Streeter (author of Reality) in order to attempt ‘corporate thinking’ on the nature of Science and Religion. There were four contributors to the book (all members of the University of Oxford) and Macmurray wrote two of the six chapters. (Streeter also wrote two and the other two contributors one each.) These are:

II Beyond Knowledge pp 21-45 (25 pp)

V Objectivity in Religion pp 177-215 (39 pp)

They are worth reading, not least because they are evidence of how early in his career Macmurray was concerned with orthodox Christian doctrines. (He was a mere boy of 37 when these papers were published.) I have encountered a view of Macmurray which sees him in youth as having been something like a modern, radical ‘Sea of Faith’ theologian and using the term ‘God’ merely as a convenient shorthand for something like ‘the sum total of all the human personal relationships there have ever been’. This view then goes on to say that as Macmurray got older and nearer to death his nerve failed or he became frightened of his (still living) Calvinist mother and he then started making more orthodox Christian noises. This volume gives the lie to this. Macmurray was from the beginning a theistic realist who took seriously at least some of the orthodox doctrines of Christianity. Where he differed from some Christian thinkers was in considering that religious doctrines should be expressed in a way that left them vulnerable to testing. In this way they would be analogous to scientific hypotheses. Religion would then be capable of an objectivity analogous to that of science. Thus could be developed a mature religion which science need not be ashamed to serve.

The book follows the old-fashioned practice of giving a synopsis of each chapter before the chapter proper. I find this quite useful, possibly because part of my background is medical, and with medical papers the habit is retained!

Chapter II: Beyond Knowledge

In this essay Macmurray attempts to resolve the confusions which cluster around the concepts of faith and knowledge, and so also the confusions around related concepts and topics such as religion, science, certainty, probability, intuition, mysticism, authority, tradition, instinct, action, experiment and so on. The essay aims at a definition of the antithesis between faith and knowledge and so between religion and science. The antithesis is held to be of great importance because although intensely real and fundamental to all human experience it is often vaguely and falsely constructed. He traces the historical origins of the division e.g. between ‘certain’ and ‘probable’ knowledge in Locke.

He goes on to make observations and conclusions which include the following: The roots of our life strike deep into mystery, and religion demands that we should live our lives, and order our conduct, with constant reference to a mystery that passes our comprehension. A mystic’s experience is not knowledge but rather a vision of what there is to be known. Faith is not a kind of knowledge but a practical attitude of the will, common to both healthy objective science and healthy objective religion. Belief is the raw material of knowledge. Science starts by testing beliefs, not facts, and thus goes on to accumulate a body of knowledge. Where there is knowledge there is no certainty. Where there is certainty there is no knowledge. Religion is a more inclusive form of reflection than science but in its sphere the modus operandi of science, eschewing both Rationalism and Agnosticism, is the same as that of mature Christianity. Both give us a moral way of conducting ourselves in relation to our ignorance in a mysterious world. Both rest on faith. Beyond knowledge lies action, practice. Faith is courage in the face of ignorance and insecurity. Authority should be our guide and not our master; tradition should be our starting-point and not our resting-place. To appeal to authority is to reject freedom, to turn from our duty to our comfort, to exchange courage for cowardice. To set authority against reason is to sever the spinal cord of human progress.

A ‘faith’ which does not submit itself to reason, which prefers to ground itself upon ‘experience’, intuition, tradition or mysticism, must be below and not beyond knowledge. Such faith earns justly the charge of obscurantism and superstition. The scientist experiments with his knowledge in the hope of proving it faulty. This last view is of additional incidental interest to me because it is evidence of Macmurray holding it five years earlier than I had known hitherto (Interpreting the Universe, 1933). The insight is generally credited to Popper but I suspect that Macmurray got there first. (Popper first published The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959 but the German version Logik der Forschung came out in 1935.)

Chapter V: Objectivity in Religion

Religion is grounded in a belief in the objectivity of God. And a God who is the ultimate reality and is conceived as personal. The attribution of personality to God solves the problem of how God can be both universal and a unique individual. He can be both transcendent and immanent because this is the nature of any personality, including that possessed by human beings.

If a religion is to be completely valid it must achieve universality. Macmurray reflects upon the attempts of the ancient Hebrews to achieve this in their religious experience. (Macmurrian scholars will recall that he considers the ancient Hebrews to have been the only genuinely religious people to have had an input into our Western culture and in this contrasts them with the other two main contributors – the Greeks and the Romans. See e.g. his Clue to History or my summary review of it.) There were two main strands to Hebrew religion: the priestly and the prophetic.

The priestly strand tried to achieve universality by unifying all activities under the law which expresses the will of God for man. As nature as well as human life must be uniformly and together dominated by the one law there is a tendency to connect keeping the law with material prosperity. The disadvantage of this legalistic approach is that the more it succeeds the more it drives out that religiously necessary phenomenon, personality. Hence the attacks made on it by the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and Paul.

There were three indictments of legalistic religion:

i. The Book of Job: Keeping of law does not automatically result in material prosperity
ii. Paul: Sinful man can’t keep the law so man is isolated from God, and a life of fellowship with Him is impossible
iii. Jesus: Sabbath made for man – not vice versa

A legalistic religion fails to achieve objectivity.

The prophetic type of religious development is personal and in two senses. It has its being in the spiritual experience of individual men, and its central theme is the nature of the divine personality. However, the sublimest prophetic conception of the character of God is but the art-product of human phantasy, born of the Will-to-Believe. Although it is more spiritual than the legalistic type of religion, still it does not achieve objectivity. For, how does the prophet know that the Lord saith thus?

Two gulfs appear in prophetic religion:

i. that between the personality of the prophet and that of his God (leading to a sense of unworthiness)
ii. that between his conception of the character of God and the hard brutalities of natural experience which are to find their meaning and origin in Him.

The prophet’s ‘Thus saith the Lord’ is evidence at once of his need to appeal beyond himself for the authority of his vision, and of his inability to make good the claim, for such a claim could have an objective standing only if it were both made and judged by perfect personality.

The needs arising from the difficulties experienced by the legalistic and prophetic types of religion are met by the hypothesis of an incarnation. If God becomes incarnate in a human personality, both gulfs are bridged, and religion becomes objective at once.

Macmurray considers, as a hypothesis, that Jesus of Nazareth was such an incarnation and concludes that it is a reasonable one. He then gives some indications how, as a community, we might conduct our lives in a religiously objective fashion in order to test the hypothesis. He argues strongly for the need for religion to be objective. A subjective religion, although at first sight tempting, is a false and cowardly friend.